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Addressing the World's Hottest Issue

Global warming

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Addressing the World's Hottest Issue

The setting for a global gathering on climate change last December, on the South Pacific island of Bali, was idyllic. But what transpired during the discussions was less so.

The setting for a global gathering on climate change last December, on the South Pacific island of Bali, was idyllic. But what transpired during the discussions was less so.

The United Nations-sponsored conference, at which Canada played a surprisingly high-profile role, laid bare a potential split between industrialized and underdeveloped countries that threatens to complicate the fight to safeguard the world from global warming.

Every country, rich and poor, has a role to play in the growing crisis as, obviously, all nations share an address on Planet Earth. But should poverty-stricken countries be expected to respond to the world’s fossil fuel problem in the same manner as wealthy countries?

Canada Fuels a Debate

A notion advanced by Canadian Environment Minister John Baird in Bali was that poorer countries with high total greenhouse-gas emissions should be subjected to the same binding, absolute emissions targets as industrialized countries.

Canada’s per-capita emissions are now five times those of China and 10 times those of India, but Baird seems preoccupied by the fact that while Canada contributes a scant 2 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, populous India spews forth 4.2 percent and China nearly 19 percent. Indeed, the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change forecast in 2002 that within the first half of the current century, greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries, such as Mexico, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey, will likely surpass those from developed countries.

“I’ll put reality on the table,” declared Baird. His version of reality, however, created a major stumbling block at the conference attended by 187 countries. It represented a stark departure from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which mandates “common but differentiated responsibilities” among nations when it comes to combatting climate change.

Specifically, Kyoto requires that developed nations–with their higher per-capita emissions, wealth, and share of past responsibility for global warming–take the lead in reducing emissions. It’s worth noting that per-capita emissions in the developed world are six times what they are in the developing world and, to date, only developed nations have been asked to meet binding emissions targets.

Environmental activists were appalled by the Canadian position, shared by the global-warming dinosaur on its southern border as well as by Japan. Climate Action Network International, a lobby of climate change advocates, voted Canada the country that made the worst overall contribution to the Bali negotiations. Throughout the two-week conference, the group repeatedly gave Canada its “Fossil of the Day Award.”

“Canada came to Bali demanding unfair commitments from developing countries, and was roundly criticized for it,” remarked Emilie Moorhouse of the Sierra Club of Canada.

In the end, with the talks in overtime, Baird caved to global pressure and agreed to a vague “Bali Roadmap,” which outlined conditions for negotiations toward a post-2012 phaseof Kyoto.

The Globe is Warming

While politicians at these increasingly frequent international conferences jockey in the interests of their own backyards, the climate continues slowly and incrementally to morph.

In the last century, average sea levels rose by 10 to 20 cm. They’re projected to rise another 10 to 90 cm by 2100. Average surface temperature has increased by 0.06 C in the last century. It will go up by another 1.4 to 5.8 C by 2100, according to current predictions from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The sad fact is that climate change is having, and will continue to have, a disproportionately harsh effect on poor people living in developing countries. That’s because these Asian, African, and Latin American countries, along with some 51 small island states and territories, happen to be located in tropical and subtropical regions.

An Island Disappears Under the Sea

“Rising seas, caused by global warming, have for the first time washed an inhabited island off the face of the earth,” reported the British newspaper The Independent in 2006.

Poof! The Bay of Bengal had had its way with a small Indian island. “The disappearance of Lohachara, once home to 10,000 people, is unprecedented.”

The Poor Pay

Between 1990 and 1998, 97 percent of deaths caused by natural disasters–nearly all of which were climate, weather, and water related–took place in developing countries. Why?

Consider that in developing countries, agriculture, almost entirely reliant on rainwater, accounts for 70 percent of jobs. Developing countries are also highly vulnerable to the loss of biodiversity and species migration patterns that are bound to shift with climate change. Climate-sensitive diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and diarrhea, and waterborne diseases such as dengue are expected to spread to new areas in the developing world. Fifty river basins in Africa straddle national boundaries, making conflicts stemming from changing water levels a likelihood.

Furthermore, the poor in developing countries are not able to adapt to climate change as well as inhabitants of advanced nations. They lack both the financial resources and the human expertise. Then there’s the issue of weak infrastructure: Third World housing and amenities (such as roads and bridges) typically do not provide much protection from increasingly wild weather conditions.

Clearly, an international consensus is required to ensure that the Third World will get the help it needs. That help will mean many things–everything from developing a global strategy to cope with a new category of migrant, “the environmental refugee,” to development of more drought-tolerant crops. One such crop, called NERICA (“NEw RIce for AfriCA”), is now being planted in C?d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Uganda.

Several specific measures to ensure support for developing nations were taken in Bali. An accord was struck for the management of funding for adaptation projects. Approval was given to accelerate technology transfers aimed at helping needy countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. Conference delegates pledged to address deforestation. Finally, they extended the mandate of an expert group working to assess adaptation needs.

Messages From Bali

The Bali participants did more than that. They raised the profile of the onerous climate change challenges that have already begun confronting the world’s poorer countries.

The Bali conference, and Canada’s role in it, also demonstrated that politicians aren’t necessarily ideal players to be negotiating climate change terms. Their own interests are tied more to the next electoral cycle than the next half century–and politicians tend to focus on the welfare of their home country rather than the health of the entire planet.

In Canada’s case, pledges made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol have not been kept, mainly due to fears about harming the economy. The new Harper government in 2006 replaced the old Paul Martin crowd, capriciously casting off the blame for Canada’s Kyoto failure on those no longer in power. The Harper government is now making its own Kyoto-type commitments, again exercising caution so as not to alienate voters worried about the economic impact of stringent emissions reductions.

In the end it is ordinary people who have final say. If European leaders are more active on the climate change file, it is because they perceive this to be what their constituencies want.

What might be required in Canada is a form of political climate change. When Baird and his fellow Conservatives feel enough heat from Canadians, they will become more outward looking, determined, and aggressive in addressing the biggest crisis of our time.

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